Cloister Wash & Lube is simultaneously one of the most successful and unusual carwash businesses in the nation. Its success stems from an admirable formula of innovation, creativity and passion that few operations can emulate. In part, that’s because, for owner Mike Mountz, Cloister is much more than a business; it is an opportunity to shape people’s lives and capture customers’ imaginations.
If that sounds a little Disneyesque, it should. Mountz has clearly been inspired by some of the characteristics and ideals that endear Disney to its theme park visitors. But he also is driven by efficiency, and the combination of his playful imagination with his creative ingenuity is what makes Cloister tick.
Consider that Cloister Wash & Lube is comprised of four Pennsylvania locations, and no two are really all that much alike. There are similarities and common services, certainly, but Mountz has hardly used a carbon-copy approach. Instead, each new location has advanced the ideas incorporated into its predecessors, using them as a springboard to something fresh.
For example, when Mountz purchased his first carwash in Ephrata, Pa., in 1984, it was a traditional, exterior carwash that could not work as a full-service location. Determined to increase volume, price and expand services, he devised a precursor to flex-serve that many fellow operators thought would fail.
As customers exited the wash tunnel, they could bring their cars into a designated area for window cleaning and vacuuming. With an $80,000 investment riding on the concept, Mountz tried for two weeks to give the added full-service package away for free as a promotion. Only 4 percent of Cloister’s customers opted for the service in the first week, and just 6 percent took the free offer in the second week.
Needing a 30 percent take to break even, Mountz decided to charge for the service beginning in its third week. Cloister’s business hasn’t been the same since. “The moment I started charging for it, [customer participation] went up to 28 percent,” he recalls. “The moral of the story is that when something is free, there is no value placed to it. As soon as we started charging for it, there was a value and people wanted to purchase it.”
Today, the number of customers who opt for the full-service package at the Ephrata location runs between 50 percent and 65 percent, Mountz says, and car volume at the location has increased from 37,000 in 1984 to more than 82,300 last year. That’s not bad considering Ephrata is a small town and that the price for a basic exterior wash has grown through the years from $3 to $12.
“We took it from a very small facility and just kept adding grease to the wheel,” he notes.
The early Ephrata experience helped Mountz learn some valuable lessons in fulfilling a challenging business model that called for high volume and high prices. Despite a fragile economy, Cloister continues to flourish behind packages that range from $12 for a basic exterior wash to $27 for its top full-service option. Nearly every segment at each location posted double-digit growth last year, he says.
Between its four locations, Cloister serviced nearly 750,000 vehicles last year, including 683,000 washes. The company also completed 66,919 lube services at three locations. The average traditional full-service ticket is about $18.50, Mountz says, while the average flex-serve customer pays $16.25.
Because of its pricing structure, Cloister’s high volume is dependent on production efficiencies as well as providing memorable customer experiences. Without drawing in customers for more than just its services, Cloister wouldn’t have such high volume demands to meet. Fortunately, Mountz’s innovation has helped optimize both parameters.
Although Cloister’s second location, in York, Pa., was built as a traditional carwash and continues to operate that way today, Mountz scrutinized the time it took for attendants to move customer vehicles and determined it took as much time to move a car as it did to clean it. Mountz didn’t like that customers were essentially paying Cloister to move their cars, so he used his background in manufacturing to devise a “people mover” system of conveyor belts that would transform his next carwash into a cutting-edge facility.
In 1999, Cloister’s Lancaster, Pa., location introduced Mountz’s moving belt interior cleaning process. The system is essentially an assembly line using conveyors to move vehicles and attendants through each cleaning station, from final wipe down to windows to vacuums. Based entirely on timing, a two-belt system moves vehicles 134 feet through the interior cleaning process. Express wax services are handled on a slower, separate conveyor.